Biblical Advice for the Internet Age iii

This is the third of four instalments on internet privacy and Biblical values. Last week we discussed how peoples’ professional and even social life suffers from the excess information we put on line, which does not remain private, and suggested some practical measures, inspired by Micah’s prophecy, that would spare people much anguish. Not everybody, however, can simply fix his or her on line profile and re-engineer his or her online identity to be more wholesome, more chaste. Some people suffer their identity irrevocably, as we will see.

Some people land in difficulty because poor taste and poor mores; others because of poor judgement. Some people exhibit smaller or greater moral-ethical failings, and commit crimes, for which they subsequently get arrested. Others get arrested by association, because of the poor, apparently criminal company they keep, but are ultimately freed of all charges, or are arrested through no fault of their own whatsoever – mistakes happen. Courts eventually sort out who is or isn’t guilty, but the court of public opinion doesn’t necessarily keep up with all the updates.

Once someone’s arrest is mentioned on line, or worse, his mugshot made public, the bad reputation can remain forever, and news sources will typically refuse to expunge reports, even if the suspect is eventually cleared of all charges, after all, the news sources do not want to falsify the historical record, and the chap did get arrested. For those people, the option of cleaning up their own internet pages is hardly available.

Such people could be helped, if only more jurisdictions and media outlets would grasp that public arrest records do not only have a greater deterrent effect, but create also a lot of excessive damage in the Internet 2.0 era. More jurisdictions could abolish the perp walk and otherwise frown upon or prohibit publishing suspects’ names until they are charged or convicted.

People are innocent until proven guilty, even when a conviction is overturned upon appeal, but all the more so in such a case, the prior stain on one’s reputation remains forever accessible through the search engines and the publicly searchable archives.

Even those who are unquestionably guilty of a crime may deserve some limited sympathy. After all, jurisdictions typically include statutes limiting how long a conviction remains on someone’s police record. The time limit will depend on the kind of crime committed, but only the most severe criminals will have to bear the scarlet letter of his conviction on his police record for life.

Before court records were on line, it would take considerable effort to do a background check. People would typically be asked to include a copy of their – hopefully blank – police record in, say, a job application. If someone had committed some minor crime, it would cast a shadow for a couple of years after being released from jail, if any, and then, the now rehabilitated suspect could rebuild his life. Nowadays, however, those convictions get picked up by search engines and internet archives, and the archives of the possibly minor local papers that had reported on the arrest and conviction is similarly publicly searchable, so that the stain of the conviction never goes away, no matter how little the crime.

Living in our progressive societies, we often like to expound that jail is not just a punishment, but an attempt at reforming the criminal. However, by recording and making arrest and conviction records accessible forever, are we not effectively handing out a life sentence to every single criminal. How are they to ever rebuild their lives?

Furthermore, sentencing guidelines were conceived in the old, pre-Internet 2.0 world, but given that the stain of crime sticks so much better nowadays, have we not unintentionally made the punishment much harsher than ever intended? It is, after all, far worse to deny someone to ever rise higher on the career ladder, even when one still has twenty or thirty years of professional life ahead, than to keep him a few more years in jail. With a reputation that never fades, aren’t we effectively sentencing them to a life of poverty, even after they did the time?

I am reminded of R’ Ovadya Sforno understanding of Abraham’s pleading with G“d on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was not just trying to save the righteous, when he argued: „That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’“ For that, he could have simply asked for free passage out of the city, for a miracle like the one that befell Lot and his daughters. No, Abraham, says Sforno, was arguing on behalf of the wicked Sodomites. Perhaps a small number of righteous people in their midst suffice to save them.

When Abraham prays on behalf of sinners, of the most grievous sinners, and in that context, he says:

That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’

… that is when Abraham’s chosenness, his most highly redeeming qualities come to the fore, as I explored elsewhere. And G”d does not reject Abraham’s argument. No, He implicitly validates it, since Sodom was only destroyed after it was found devoid of even ten righteous people (not even a minyan!).

It feels very distasteful to defend the rights of criminals, but the righteousness of our society depends on our ability to plead for them, too. That doesn’t mean to be light on crime, but it does mean to be just and to allow those people who are redeemable, to redeem themselves over time. But essentially brandishing every convict for life, is to make them all unredeemable, a cruelty we should definitely avoid. There are of course some criminals who are so dangerous that society needs to remain forewarned as long as they live, but everybody else should be allowed to redeem himself, as Abraham plead before G”d.

As I repeatedly argued, the destruction of online privacy is first and foremost a societal problem, not a technological one, because there hardly are any effective technological solutions. The present aspect of electronic privacy this post has been discussed deserves to become the topic of a thorough societal, because how we deal with this issue very much reflects whether ours are loving, merciful, hopeful societies, or harsh, even cruel societies.

One Response to Biblical Advice for the Internet Age iii

  1. […] This is the fourth and final instalment in the series Biblical Advice for the Internet Age. [Previous instalments: I, II and III.] […]

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